China’s Renewable Energy

by John Mathews and Hao Tan, Japan Focus

China’s renewable energy revolution is powering ahead, with the year 2013 marking an important inflection point where the scales tipped more towards electric power generated from water, wind and solar than from fossil fuels and nuclear. This means that its energy security is being enhanced, while carbon emissions from the power sector can be expected to soon start to fall, we argue.

China’s energy revolution, which underpins its transformation into the world’s largest manufacturing system (the new “workshop of the world”), continues to astonish all observers and to terrify some. China is known widely as the world’s largest user and producer of coal, and the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This is true. Less noticed has been the fact that China is also building the world’s largest renewable energy system – which by 2013 stood at just over 1 trillion kilowatt hours – already nearly as large as the combined total of electrical energy produced by the power systems of France and Germany.1

renewable energy revolutionFig. 1 Chinese thermal power generation and rising coal consumption up to 2013Source of primary data: the data of the total coal consumption (up to 2012) and thermal electricity generation (up to 2011) is available from the US EIA. The data of coal consumption for thermal power is available from the National Bureau of Statistics of China. The data of the total coal consumption for 2013 is available from the China Coal Industry Association. The data for the thermal electricity generation in 2012 and 2013 is available from the China Electricity Council.

The energy landscape continues to give the clearest indication of the trends in industrial dynamics and prospects for the future. China is powering ahead with renewables while at the same time it expands its reliance on fossil fuels; the US by contrast is further locking in its dependence on fossil fuels. The distinction is critical.

Data for the full-year 2013 are now available, from both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in the US and the China Electricity Council (CEC) as well as the National Energy Administration (NEA) in China.2 This allows us to examine the total electric power systems in each country, and to assess the direction of change by studying the increments in power generation capacity added in 2013, as well as additional electrical energy generated and the allocation of new investments across the three main energy sources – fossil fuels (mainly coal); renewables, and nuclear.

Both the US and China now have electric power systems rated at just north of 1 trillion watts each – with China edging ahead at 1.25 TW compared with the US at 1.16 TW – a significant milestone in itself, as China emerges as the most electrically powered nation on the planet (while per capita power consumption remains four times higher for the US).

China Environmnent Energy Consumption

China Environmnent Energy Consumption

We need to sketch in the background to China’s energy revolution, so that the enormity of its commitment to renewables may be appreciated. We can see firstly how China continues to expand its ‘black’ energy system based on fossil fuels, and particularly coal, for its electric power generation. We show the situation updated to 2013 in Figure 1, where the relentless rise in the size of the fossil-fuelled power generation system is clearly shown, and the rising dependence on coal. While coal for thermal power continues to rise, the overall consumption of coal appears to be ‘capped’ at 3,500 million tonnes – a desperate measure taken no doubt in response to the blackening skies and poisoning of water and air. READ MORE….

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